Thursday, September 07, 2017

Ask The Wrong Question, Get The Wrong Answer, Risk Public Health

An example of a Kompan 'Supernova'
Saw a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity. The study, The effect of increasing risk and challenge in the school playground on physical activity and weight in children: a cluster randomised controlled trial (PLAY), set to measure the impact of school playground redesigns aimed at encouraging "imaginative and independent free play" on Grade 1-8 students' weight, waist circumferences, BMI z-scores, and their accelerometer measured activity intensity and duration.

All the schools involved in the intervention arm made substantial changes to their playgrounds which sound so fantastic that here's the paper's description,
"All eight intervention schools made substantial changes to their school play spaces, which promoted greater risk and challenge through building new areas (hills and tunnels), adding more dynamic equipment (for example, a Kompan ‘Supernova’ that requires co-ordination and teamwork to use), or via relaxing the rules (letting children ride their bicycles or scooters on school grounds, allowing children to climb trees or play outside in the rain). Children were able to engage more with natural elements, create imaginative play opportunities with loose parts (carrying tree stumps around to form a spaceship or a jumping game where the ground cannot be touched) or long grass (places to hide, roll around in, throw mown grass at each other). Some schools also ensured greater equity in access for all ages, or made different aspects of the playground more attractive"
The results weren't shocking.

The installation of awesome sounding playgrounds and relaxing playground rules wasn't shown to have any effect on kids' weights, waists, or BMI z-scores.

I say the results aren't surprising because why would anyone expect, even with a best case scenario, that an increase in schoolyard imaginative or challenging play could change kids' weights or waists? How many minutes messing around on a Koman Supernova would it take a young child to burn 100 calories more than they would lazily moving and resting in a plain lot? If I were a betting man, my vote would be in the neighbourhood 2-3 hours, or more than a week's worth of recess. But that's not a fair way to consider those calories given that those 100 calories aren't likely to be above and beyond the calories those same kids would have burned if they were engaged in less imaginative or challenging play.

As to activity, at least according to the kids' accelerometers, there wasn't an increase, though I'm fairly sure that they're unable to measure imagination.

What didn't the study measure? Physical literacy, fun, or happiness.

Honestly I can't understand why this study was conducted, at least in the context of the kids' weights and such. There's no mechanism by which anyone could reasonably expect fancier playground equipment to lead to significant weight change, but now that the study's out there, I wonder if it'll serve to discourage schools from undertaking awesome playground remodels of their own? I sure hope not. They sound great.